Tonga might have to wait until the second week of next month, or longer, for its main communications connection to the outside world to be repaired - but help is on the way.
The volcanic explosion and subsequent tsunami in Tonga last week broke the undersea fibre optic cable - 37km offshore - that connects about 100,000 people in the region to the internet. A domestic cable was also damaged.
US company TE Subcom - which has a contract to maintain the majority Government-owned, 837km long Tonga Cable - has a repair ship, the CS Reliance, en route from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where it was at the time of the eruption.
"The vessel is about halfway to Samoa now and scheduled to arrive on January 30," Tonga Cable director Samiuela Fonua told the Herald this morning.
The Reliance will pickup spares in Samoa before heading on to Tonga to start the repair operation on February 1, if conditions remain clear.
"The priority now is the international cable while further assessments are being conducted on the domestic segment of the cable," Fonua said.
"The actual duration of the repair is not known yet but we are hoping that if everything goes to plan, we may have international connectivity on the second week of February."
Meanwhile, more satellite backup has come online.
Global satellite network operator Intelsat said overnight it had worked with Spark and Telstra to create a communications network for emergency workers and NZ Defence Force personnel who have joined the relief effort.
Intelsat is providing space-based broadband connectivity on Horizons 3e and Intelsat 18 satellites, while partners Telstra and Spark are providing the ground infrastructure, including VSAT hubs for sending and the satellite broadband.
Horizons 3e and Intelsat 18 are traditional telecommunications satellites in a geostationary (or "geostat") orbit about 35,000km above Earth.
Medium Earth-orbit operator SES has also joined the relief effort, partnering with Digicel Tonga to provide basic international calling capability. Digicel has set up an interim system on Tongatapu, (home to around two-thirds of Tonga's population, using the University of South Pacific's satellite dish, which may allow a 2G connection to be established today. This connection will be limited and patchy, covering about 10 per cent of usual capacity and prioritising voice and text communications.
National MP Shane Reti appealed to Elon Musk, whose new Starlink network of thousands of satellites - orbiting about 550km above Earth - now offers a new broadband option for many people worldwide, including some early-adopters in New Zealand - where Musk's service is supported by a network of six purpose-built ground stations.
But the maverick billionaire replied: "This is a hard thing for us to do right now, as we don't have enough satellites with laser links and there are already geosats that serve the Tonga region."
Musk also tweeted, "Could people from Tonga let us know if it is important for SpaceX to send over Starlink terminals?"
A Starlink terminal is needed to receive a broadband signal from Starlink's satellite network.
With most Tongans offline, replies were dominated by people sounding off on unrelated topics about Musk's other ventures. In any case, it now looks likely Tonga's submarine cable will be repaired much faster than it would take to get Starlink infrastructure on the ground.
A fourth satellite broadband operator Kacific, is reportedly in a dispute with a Tongan government-owned company, Tonga Satellite, which allegedly did not honour a US$5.7 million ($8.5m) contract awarded when the Tonga Cable was damaged in 2019, taking two weeks to repair.
Kacific has been asked for comment. [UPDATE: The satellite operator said on Tuesday night: "Kacific has now been cleared by the Tongan telecommunications regulator to provide services to several telecom operators and service providers within Tonga, making fast high-quality broadband available throughout the Kingdom. The breakthrough happened on Thursday (January 20), when the regulator lifted a ban on the use of Kacific's services which Kacific understands was imposed due to arbitration proceedings between Kacific and the Tongan Government.
"Kacific is now able to provide over 1GBPS of satellite capacity to Tonga, as required. It has been offering this capacity since last Friday, and people are already using the service.
"Bandwidth from Kacific1 [a geostationary satellite] can be shared among the telecom operators and service providers, enabling immediate relief to emergency services.
"The bandwidth can later be redirected and used for a wide range of activities: supporting mobile networks, connecting communities in remote outer islands or providing high-quality internet connectivity to businesses and agencies."